We went from Costa Rica to Panama as a way of taking four-night night vaca in Bocas del Toro. Neither Thomas or I had ever done the whole Central America border crossing thing before so we were a little nervous (OK a lotta nervous). Thomas tends to freak out about border crossings ever since I illegally flew from Miami to Germany and told him halfway through our flight that I doubted they’d let me enter Germany…..He puts up with a lot sometimes 🙂
This guide aims to answer all of your questions regarding how to get from Costa Rica to Panama and what to expect in the border crossing process.
Costa Rica to Panama: Tips for the Bus
–Mepe has buses that run daily from San Jose to the border (Sixaola)
-The bus costs 6,000 colones per person for one way (about $12).
-The buses leave from San Jose daily at 6:00 am, 10:00 am, 14:00 pm, and 16:00. Please check the Mepe website for an updated timetable here.
-Take the bus at 6 am. We ended up waiting on the border for several hours (which we’ll get to that nightmare in a minute). If we had taken a later bus we wouldn’t have gotten through the line at Customs before they closed. You do not want to spend a night at the town on the border. It’s not the most pleasant place.
-You need to remember that Panama is an hour ahead of Costa Rica as far as time zones go.
-There is no bathroom on the bus, but they do stop in Limon half way through the drive so you can use the bathroom and buy refreshments.
-Don’t drink a ton of coffee before hopping on the bus or you will suffer through three miserable hours like I did.
-Buy your ticket ahead of time if you can. The buses tend to fill up.
-Bring a thin sweater. I was cold from the strong AC.
Costa Rica to Panama: The Bus Ride
We left our apartment at about 5:15 am with an Uber so we could be there a bit early even though we had purchased tickets ahead of time. Uber is legal in Costa Rica and is wayyyy cheaper than taxis for getting around.
When we arrived the bus terminal was already hopping. They open the ticket window at 5:30 am if you were unable to buy tickets ahead of time. There was a long line of people trying to buy tickets, but I think they all got one.
We just chilled on a bench until they started letting people on our bus. Your large bag will go under the bus. Make sure to keep all valuables on you rather than in the bag going under the bus. I’ve heard horror stories of people having their stuff stolen.
These buses are great because you have an assigned seat number. This meant we didn’t have to rush on in hopes that we could sit together.
We were pleasantly surprised that the bus actually left on time, was pretty comfortable, and had air conditioning. I expected it would be a normal public bus which are not the nicest here. There is no bathroom on the bus, but they do stop in Limon half way through the drive so you can use the bathroom and buy refreshments.
It took about six and a half hours to get to Sixaola. It was long, but I slept through most of it or looked out the window at the pretty Caribean coast. 🙂
Costa Rica to Panama: Leaving the Costa Rica Side
Once we arrived in Sixaola we bought a bus ticket for heading back to Costa Rica at the end of our trip in Bocas. We figured it was good to have a seat already reserved and we could then show our bus tickets at customs as proof we were leaving the country. The bus from Sixaola to San Jose leaves at 6 am, 8 am, 10 am, and 15:00. We opted to take the 10 am bus and suggest the same to you. This will allow you to get back from Bocas to the border and through the border (which doesn’t open until 8 am) with plenty of time.
You will then cross the parking lot and head to the street. It is a bit confusing because there are no signs directing you but just follow everyone else. A few meters down the road on the left-hand side there is a small building selling food. You will see other people standing outside in a line. You need to go there to get the exit paperwork which you need to fill out and to pay the $8 exit tax from Costa Rica. It doesn’t look very official, but it is. After you pay the tax you will get a receipt. Hold on to that. You’ll need it next.
Continue down the road and you’ll see a nicer building on the right-hand side with people lined up. Join the line. This is the Costa Rica immigration building. Once it is your turn they will ask for your paperwork and exit receipt. It’s pretty easy to get through this side of things.
Once you leave, you will continue down the street and over a narrow bridge. Prepare yourself, shits about to get crazy!
Costa Rica to Panama: The Panama Side
On the other side of the bridge, you will see a line of people on the left-hand side. This is the customs line. Thomas and I just joined the line and started noticing people with a little slip of paper in their hand. We asked a girl about it and she said there is an entry tax of $4 that we need to pay first. She told us to cross the road and go up the steps (there is a raised section of land) to pay our tax.
There are literally no signs anywhere and I’ve heard very mixed things about this entry tax. I really don’t know if it is an official thing or not. Some people I’ve talked to were required to show proof that they paid it, others were not. I say just lean to the side of caution and pay it.
Thomas took our passports and went to go pay it while I waited in line…and he came back….and we waited some more….and some more. In fact, we waited for over three hours in the line at the customs office. This line was outside in direct sunlight. It was pretty miserable. Granted we were traveling during Easter weekend so I think the lines might have been a lot worse because of the holiday.
When we finally got to the front of the line we gave the Customs Officer our passports, our return bus tickets (I also had a flight from San Jose to Boston to show as proof and Thomas is a Costa Rica resident so he had his residency card), and our receipt from paying the mysterious entry fee.
The customs officer barely asked us any questions, but I think we just got lucky because the line was still really long and they were closing in an hour. People ahead of us got questioned a lot more. We talked to other people who had to give copies of their passport (make sure to bring two copies of your personal info page on your passport just in case), hotel booking proof, and departure proof.
Costa Rica to Panama: Now What?
First stop is the duty-free shop next to the customs office. They’ve got the AC cranked up if you need to cool down and you can buy some cheap liquor for your trip. Priorities people!
If you are heading to Bocas del Toro head up to the big parking lot next to the customs office. There will be a lot of small buses there with men offering to take you to the boat launch. This is the cheapest way for you to get to where the boat to Bocas leaves. We paid $10 per person and hopped on the bus with five German girls (which was nice since Thomas is German and I can understand the language. We could talk about our crazy bus driver in our own secret language).
The bus ride was terrifying. I thought we were going to die. The trip to where the boat leaves took about 45 minutes through some curvy hilly back roads. This dude took the curves at like 70mph the whole way. Ugh!
Your bus driver will drop you off at a boat launch where you can buy a boat ticket. I believe it was $5 per person. We hopped on a boat with a bunch of other people and after about 30 minutes we finally arrived at Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro. Yeayyy!!
We seriously bought beer, went to our hotel, and chugged beers under a cold shower. That was all we wanted after traveling for almost 12 hours.
Costa Rica to Panama: What we learned
-Definitely take the 6am bus from San Jose. Taking the bus later probably would have been way worse and we wouldn’t have made it through customs before they closed for the day.
-Take the 10am bus back when heading back to San Jose
-If you have the money it might be worth it to fly on Nature Air from San Jose to Bocas del Toro. We found flights for as low as $177 one way, which isn’t cheap, but you need to consider we spent about $40 per person between taking an Uber to the bus terminal, bus to the border, exit tax from Costa Rica, entry tax to Panama, shuttle, and the boat.
-On the border and in Bocas del Toro dollars are accepted everywhere
-Panama is an hour ahead of Costa Rica
Costa Rica to Panama: What to bring/ wear
I wore a t-shirt, gym leggings, Ex-Officio underwear (which I’m OBSESSED with) and Birkenstocks. I should have worn gym shorts and sneakers instead of leggings and Birks. I got so sweaty standing in the sun for three hours and my feet started to hurt. I also brought a thin gauzzy cardigan that I put on once I felt like my arms were getting too much sun.
Thomas wore gym shorts, a t-shirt, a baseball hat, and sneakers. This was perfect for him.
We suggest bringing a small backpack (currently obsessed with this Herschel design) just for things you will need along the journey. Our bag consisted of:
-Lots of SPF 50 lotion
-A HUGE full water bottle (even that wasn’t enough)
-a lightweight rain jacket (you never know around here)
-lots of snacks (they don’t check anywhere to see if you are bringing meat or produce into the country)
-Two copies of your passport
-Proof of departure from Panama
–Travel Insurance (it’s not required for entry, but you never know what’s going to happen while in a foreign country. We just like to be cautious).
-All of your valuables (always keep your valuables on you and not in your larger bag)
Costa Rica to Panama: Would we do it again?
Yes! 100%! It was a really long day, but we survived. Plus I think once you do it once you realize it’s not that stressful. Also, Bocas del Toro was possibly my favorite place I’ve ever been in my life besides Amsterdam. You’ve gotta visit!
We have a full guide to Bocas del Toro here if you need some tips on amazing things to do!
WAS THIS INFO HELPFUL? WE’D LOVE IF YOU’D PIN IT! 🙂